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The Hamilton Spectator | By Eric McGuinness | March 8, 2002

This little, genetically modified piggy -- and 10 others -- went to market by mistake. Now federal officials are scrambling to come up with new rules to keep it from happening again.

Human health risk appears low in the case involving experimental University of Guelph piglets turned into chicken feed, but it's getting serious attention.

It also adds to the controversy over whether bio-engineered animals and genetically modified crops should be grown for human consumption. Critics argue dangers outweigh advantages, but modified ingredients are already in
food products.

Louise Laferriere of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency calls the pig case a "very clear signal" that more must be done to prevent transgenic animals from accidentally entering the food chain. She worries especially about animals being developed to produce pharmaceuticals in
their bodies.

In response, Environment Canada is investigating whether there was a violation of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and is joining with Health Canada and the food inspection agency to develop tougher regulations
for handling research animals.

Laferriere, a biologist in the agency's office of biotechnology, says it's the first such case in Canada, but there are reports of similar happenings in Germany and Florida.

She says the Guelph incident is "a very clear indication the system needs to be tightened. This case appears to have been benign from the point of public safety, but we have to have a stronger system.

"Environment Canada will take the lead and we will look at the policies and how they can be tightened. It may lead to specific regulations for transgenic animals."

The story begins in Ridgetown, southwest of London, where Guelph university researchers are developing "enviro-pigs," whose manure contains half the normal amount of water-polluting phosphorus.

They insert an extra gene into the pigs, one from the bacterium E. coli, so the pigs produce an enzyme in their saliva that lets them extract otherwise-indigestible phosphate from their feed.

As explained by Serguei Golovan, a member of the pig research team: "Plants have lots of organic phosphate, but ordinary pigs cannot use it. Most passes through and comes out the other end." The unabsorbed phosphate ends up in streams and rivers where it encourages algae growth, depleting oxygen needed by other life.

According to Alan Wildeman, vice-president for research at the university, 11 piglets that were either stillborn or accidentally crushed by the mother sow were wrapped, labelled and stored in a walk-in freezer for incineration.

But they were inadvertently taken to a rendering plant in January, a mistake not discovered until Feb. 13. The food inspection agency quickly began an investigation and asked Health Canada to assess the risk.

At the rendering plant, the piglets were mixed with other dead animals and cooked at 130 C for three hours. The resulting material was sold to an unidentified feed mill where it was mixed with grain and turned into 675 tonnes of poultry feed shipped to 31 farms.

By the time the food agency checked, most of the feed had been eaten by egg-laying hens, some turkeys and a smaller number of broiler chickens.

Wildeman says the enzyme is the only thing that makes the experimental pigs different from ordinary pigs, and it would be destroyed quickly in the high-temperature rendering process.

Laferriere said Health Canada scientists also concluded the piglets contained only small amounts of the enzyme, so it would have been greatly diluted in the feed and then digested by the poultry, further reducing the chance of any reaching human consumers.

Health Canada spokesman Ryan Baker says, "We conducted a risk assessment rapidly and concluded only a very low level of genetically modified material was involved and there was minimal risk to human health." As a result, the food agency decided there was no need for a recall.